Canberra – Not Like Anywhere Else

  • April 18, 2014 at 5:12 am


I remember a conversation I had with a mate many years ago.

It was one of those conversations that stick with you. Perhaps it was because we were such young men, looking for our place in the world.

The talk started with him exclaiming that he wished he was “more normal”. He felt abnormal and, in some ways, he wished he was more like everyone else.

In context, it was quite a strange thing for him to say.

His life was one that most would die for.

His job was pretty rare – I suppose if it were to be described in a job ad it would go something like – Wanted: international rock god. Must like the whole world throwing themselves at your feet. Must like complete adulation and women desperately wanting to sleep with you. Desirable – willingness to have millions of dollars.

But he desperately wanted to be more normal.

The conversation, as I have said, has stayed with me for more than three decades.

I have had similar conversations, often with very successful people.

I have often thought about being more normal too. There have been periods in my life where I deeply desired it.

But as the years went by, I started to become pretty comfortable with not being “normal” and embraced “not normal”.

And that leads me to Canberra.

Now that I am leaving, having lived half of my life here, I pause to reflect on the place.

I have, like many, had a love-hate relationship with Canberra. Some days I adored it, some days I have been pretty down on it.

But, in the main, I have come to love the place.

And why this love has grown is that it is not like anywhere else.

I am lucky to be a very mobile person. I can pretty much go anywhere. With my best mate living in Sydney, I have often ‘escaped’ Canberra on weekends. I love Sydney and we pack in a lot of fun times when I am there.

But I am always pretty happy to return to Canberra. I like Sydney but have no desire to live there.

When I come home to Canberra, I breathe in the fresh air and enjoy the lack of traffic and the ever-present car horn beeping that now seems to be the dominant aural feature of Sydney.

Cutting to the chase, I love the beauty and open space of Canberra.

It’s not like anywhere else.

But this is a quality, a brand essence that seems to escape many Canberrans. Importantly, I believe it is lost on the folks charged with promoting the place.

I remember some time back being part of a pitch for Canberra Tourism. This was long before the current team, so it’s no reflection on them.

In the brief we were asked to devise a brand and strategies to attract families with teenage children. Because of this brief, we were told explicitly that we should not include the National Attractions.

I remember scoffing at the brief. I could see it now, in lounge rooms across the nation parents offering their teenage kids the ultimate choice – do they want to go to the Gold Coast, resplendent with fun parks, or Canberra.

Honestly, the fools that thought the target market should be families with teenage children needed to get new careers. The good news is that they did get moved on. And so they should have.

Things have improved but, with due respect, there is still a crucial and misguided ethos that permeates our promotions. Sadly, it is still present in the otherwise well developed Brand Canberra.

It’s this need to be seen as being like everywhere else. The message is that we are not that different to the big cities. We are as cosmopolitan. We are as bold. We are as confident.

It’s a good story. But it is not true. More importantly, we don’t need to be like them.

We are very different to the big cities. And it’s a difference that, to the right people, will be very enticing. I stress, the right people.

I have always thought that the brand truth of Canberra is that it is simply beautiful. It’s exquisite. And that is worth a lot in a world where beauty is becoming all too rare.

The same dynamic is central to our status as a planned city.

Many Canberrans moan and groan about that. We should be more organic, more ‘anything goes’.

It’s a shocking thought. And it’s moronic.

And it’s all about being like everywhere else. It’s about becoming as ugly as Sydney. Sure, Sydney has a beautiful harbour but that is about it. Go one block back from the harbour and ugliness stretches forever. Unplanned chaos joins up into a visual mess.

Canberra, through its careful planning retains a beautiful order that, I contend, is so special and should be protected.

We now have to live with Kingston Foreshores. Although I would like to bulldoze it and start again, this time with a real master plan, we will have to live with its ugliness.

We can’t do much about New Acton. Yes, it’s a slightly more planned vision but, I contend, is not Canberra. It’s a place desperately trying to be like everywhere else.

And we should simply stop that – Canberra is not like everywhere else.

As I leave town, the raging debate around social media use by public servants is also telling and speaks to this “like everywhere else” neurosis.

My opinion on the social media issue is pretty simple. And it is influenced by the history of democracy. It goes way back to the Magna Carta and the expression of the civic sentiments in the Westminster System.

Bluntly, democracy is built on free elections, executive government, oppositions, and an impartial public service.

Public servants that desire to be not impartial should, and I need to be blunt, get a new profession.

Public service is an amazing and unique thing. Indeed, I think it is sacred. There are many great civic professions that come with important restrictions. Judges, police, etc. all take on important civic responsibility that comes with important restrictions.

Public servants are much the same and it is what makes it a mighty and important profession.

The gist of the debate around social media freedom is that public servants want the right to be “like everyone else”.

But they, by virtue of their profession, are not like everyone else.

And that is my main take-out of Canberra.

It’s not like anywhere else.

And it should embrace that.

On that note, I say goodbye to this wonderfully unique town full of wonderfully unique people.

This song sums it up -